The fields of sunflowers you see today hide nearly half a century of research in each pedal. Sunflower oil and materials created by the plant demand seed products that yield consistently and maintain quality—that means the plants’ genetics must rise to the occasion.
Presse Release. Haut-Mauco, 17/11/2021.
Genetics Drive Yield
Because demand is constant and rising for sunflower products and arable land for production is decreasing, genetic improvement and finding more sustainable ways to cultivate hectares is critical. Seed companies must be able to offer growers more bang for their buck in the form of higher yields on the same or fewer hectares.
“The biggest changes we’ve seen in sunflower over the years is tolerance to diseases and pests,” says Camille Henry, MAS Seeds Head of Oilseeds Breeding & Development, a company that is celebrating 40 years of sunflower breeding in November 2021. “This research is ongoing because pests and diseases will always evolve.”
Downy mildew, for example, has been a focus of the company. The genetics they created and marketed decades ago isn’t the same as what’s on the market today because the pathogen has evolved to withstand tolerances of yesteryear. This further proves its constant research and predicting changes that has helped take sunflower yields to the next level.
Aside from basic phenotypic research and manual crosses, sunflower breeders are using new technology to improve varieties.
“The biggest and most important breakthrough we’ve had was the integration of marker assisted selection in the early 2000s,” says Mihaela Patrascoiu, Head of Sunflower Breeding at MAS Seeds research location in Romania. “It allowed us to simplify the process of advancing specific traits to the next generation. This means we see improvements faster.”
40 Years of Innovation
40 years ago, farmers harvested about 22 million tons of sunflower (1,5 tonne/ha). Since then, growers have more than doubled the sunflower yield.
It’s not just the yield that’s improving, too. The cooking quality and nutritional profile of the plant has leaped ahead of heirloom varieties.
“When MAS Seeds started in sunflowers 40 years ago, the oil content was much less than the standard today,” Camille says. “Today all hybrids in the market have between 45 and 50 per cent oil—that’s the rule, no longer the exception.”
High oleic sunflowers, a quality-focused trait, recently hit 12 per cent of the market. MAS Seeds uses farmer needs, market trends and breeding technologies to cater sunflower varieties to whatever the need. High oleic sunflower, for example, represent a small but growing part of the market and they’re working to continue providing hybrids that fit that niche.
Just like they have achieved the past 40 years, sunflower breeders will continue to improve the plant to meet the needs of farmers and consumers while enabling more sustainable farming practices through drought and disease tolerance.
“I’m proud of the technologies and breeding innovation we’ve developed over the past 40 years,” says Michael Fourneau, MAS Seeds Head of Research and Development. “We’ve enhanced diseases resistance through genetic improvements in the HelioSMART lineup, developed three new herbicide tolerances and expanded the linoleic and high-oleic markets. We will continue to work with farmers across Europe to find solutions they need for today and tomorrow.”